Living on a Narrowboat

‘Living on a boat’ – or more specifically, ‘Living on a narrowboat’. All sorts of romantic notions are conjured up by those four words. But, before you rush out and buy one, or give up a land base to live on one, I’ve tried to outline below some of the quirks of a life afloat ALL YEAR ROUND, and in particular,some things to consider before you decide on living on a narrowboat in winter.

This is only a short list – so if you have an experience you wish to share with other boaters, just post your comments below – if they’re not too rude – I will include them!

Obvious things first – The Loo. This small room on a boat is the most talked about of any, and every boater has a horror story they would be only too pleased to recount! Essentially there are a few differing options to contain and dispose of effluence. The Portaloo (often referred to endearingly as the Bucket & Chuck it option) tends to be the most basic. Often, this self-contained unit is not even plumbed in, so is very easy to empty in all weathers (more of this later) at a number of Elsan Points or Sanitary Stations around the canal network. When you use an Elsan Point, please try and leave it in a better state than you found it. You will be loved by boaters all over the country.

The ‘half way house’ is the cassette loo. This is plumbed in and often has a conventional looking ceramic bowl, but has a cartridge or cassette that slides out of a housing to be emptied, much in the manner of the Portaloo. Many boaters find carrying two cassettes on board the best option, so as one is being emptied, the other can be in use.


Finally, many boats, especially ex hire boats such as mine, have a steel ‘holding tank’ that can last up to three weeks between emptying, but will require being pumped out. The pump out is normally to be found at a boatyard, but in some parts of the country, forward thinking Waterways Regions have installed automated self-use pumpouts – there are a few on the Trent and Mersey Canal. You buy a credit card type token from a local shop or Waterways Office, and use the pump out as you would at a Marina.

But what if the canal is frozen – and you can’t move the boat? Well – you CAN buy a ‘self pumpout’ kit. We’ve had one from Lee Sanitation for several years and it has proved a real lifesaver. The self pumpout can be used to pump into containers which are then disposed of in the same way as a Portaloo – at an Elsan Point. A quick trip in the car – or by boat when the canal thaws – can put a smile back on the face of most crews, when the loo has been full!


Heating and Hot Water – We’ve always tried to keep our options open with heating on the boat. As a result, we have a solid fuel stove (a Morso Squirrel) to burn logs – often free fuel is to be found alongside the canal throughout the year – or coal. In addition, we have diesel central heating providing heat through radiators, and as a by-product, we get a storage tank of hot water for showering, washing etc.

But what happens if the Central Heating fails? Well, the hot water storage tank has a dual coil – so by running the engine, we are able to get hot water that way too. OK, I hear you say – what if you run out of diesel? Under those circumstances (and during the summer) we have a diverter valve and can use the Calor Gas Water Heater installed as an alternative.

Fresh Water – most boats have a fairly large holding tank for domestic water – usually in the bows of the boat. Some boaters prefer to drink bottled water or boil any they wish to consume. The fill up point should be clearly marked on the boat, and can be filled from one of the many water points to be found dotted around the canal system – most quality Canal Guides, such as Nicholsons or Pearsons, clearly identify these points, and it is wise to plan ahead. Fill as you cruise, unless you are very sure how long your tank lasts between fill-ups. We’ve always assumed the next water point may not be working, and have never run out yet, in 15 years of living afloat.

In winter – keep an eye on the weather forecast. If sub-zero, icy conditions are predicted in a few days’ time, fill up well before. Cold snaps rarely last more than a week or so, and most boats should be able to last at least that long. We have also invested in a 25 litre fresh water container, available from caravan stores or motor factors, and fill this when filling the tank in winter – this has bought us an extra day or so in emergencies.

So you can see, almost any problem of living afloat all year round can be overcome with a little forward planning – and before anyone asks why I have missed it, I will be touching upon Canal and River Moorings in a future article.

Happy Boating

29 thoughts on “Living on a Narrowboat

  1. Dee

    Good stuff. Some-one told me that you should periodically use sterilizing tabs in the water tank then rinse it. Is this something you do or know about or is it buncome? Dee

    • Colin Post author

      Thanks Dee – If your boat is left for long periods, then a treatment with some form of sterilizer will do no harm, but as you say, you do need to flush your system through thoroughly before use. Personally, I have never used them, as living aboard, our water is constantly being replenished and is never more than a few days old anyway. :)

    • Mr.Moore

      Hi Folks.In a previous life I have been a yacht skipper (both Charter and pleasure for over 40 years and now own a large touring caravan for use 75% of the year.
      I personally never drink water stored in on board tanks. not even for cleaning teeth. I used to flush the boat tank yearly and use sterilizing tabs but these still leave slime that builds up inside the tank and pipes.
      I have a couple of screw top 5 ltr. cans that I drink from. Or there is Bottled water. Better to be safe than sorry and the last thing we need is an upset tummy.


      • Colin Post author

        Hi Barry – thanks for your comments – to each his own, and I would agree with a lot of what you say. However, frequent replenishment of the water supply helps to dramatically prevent bacterial growth, as the thousands of liveaboards and hire boaters every year will testify to (I think we would hear a lot more of jittery tummies on the network otherwise!) It is often where water in tanks and pipes have been left ‘static’ for any length of time that the problem occurs most. Regular cleaning and repainting of the holding tank can also help to cut down on bad bacteria.

        • Mr.Moore

          Hi Colin.
          Thanks for your response. I have never lived aboard a boat , But totally agree that constant use of the water system and regular cleaning will make safer the water. Living aboard or taking on a hire boat that is in constant use should not pose a threat. My earlier comments were aimed mainly at the weekend cruiser who topped up the tank assumed the water fit to drink.
          Happy cruising.

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  3. Rod

    Colin, a very informative read, I plan on buying and living on a narrowboat in the future and find this article very useful especially as I’ll be a first time buyer and need as much information as possible before any purchase.
    I plan on living alone and would go for a 40′ to 45′ boat which I think would be an ideal size especially when thinking about economy, fuel, heating,and mooring fees etc.

  4. Paul

    Hi Colin
    Myself and my wife lived on board for five years and love every day. The toilet is a good talking point with pro’s and con’s – the pump out toilet gives you more time between emptying but there have been times when the pump at the marina has been frozen or the canal has frozen so we opted for the cassette as you pay for the use to empty at waterways stations in with your licence and this can save you more money. Also if you are living on your own this makes it less of a job. ps when living on a boat the conversation about toilet is discussed as a regular topic bye for now Paul and Karen (ex Dragon’s Lair Nottingham)

  5. Jane

    Rod left a message on 3rd sept about living on a boat. Most importantly do your homework, read as much as possible and go and talk to people who do live on boats. We are more than happy to let you know what it is all about. The most difficult thing to find is a mooring. The cost of living on a narrowboat including mooring fees is on a par with a two bedroomed house.

    • Colin Post author

      Absolutely correct Jane – the boating community is always happy to share their experiences, and many people think that moving onto a narrowboat is the financial answer to their prayers. If you opt for (and are able to get) a legitimate residential or long term mooring it can easily run to many hundreds of pounds a month. I wish it were easier, but demand usually outstrips supply.

  6. Darren Gwilliam

    Hi Boaters, I am thinking about living on a narrow boat. I am 44years old and single. Would live onboard be a lonely place or are there lots of single live on board boaters? Also is there a web site where I can chat to people who live onboard? Thanks Darren :grin:

    • Colin Post author

      Hi Darren – I think you’ll find most boaters a friendly and helpful lot (shutting them up is often the problem!) – a good web forum for boaters – both new and established is – logon and start to chat online with these guys and gals :)

  7. Richard

    We walk along lots of canals and I have to say seeing people living on a canal boat makes me smile as they always look so content. It looks like an attractive way to live. :smile:

    Our dog once stayed on a canal boat with a friend. Unfortunately after our friend got ready for work our dog jumped in the canal and then could not get out. So our friend had to lay on the muddy bank to haul her out – she was not amused :cry: (the dog sitter that is). To make it worse she then had to put the wet dog in the boat…..

    Our dog is a poodle – no funny haircut – they are water dogs used for hunting and retrieving so she loves water. We usually keep her on the lead when walking near canals…. Lots of dogs live on canal boats…

    So a couple of things I might miss if I lived on a canal boat..

    WiFi – I guess as you have built this brill website, I assume it’s not a problem?

    Transport – do you use a bike or have a car parked nearby?

    Room for guests to stay – it’s Ok I am not inviting myself :lol:

    The main problem is I am not very tidy (my wife is) and I tend to have a problem throwing things away…..

    Thanks Colin for a great post.

  8. Dermot

    Being relatively new to this – we got our boat last Autumn – I can say it’s been a pleasure. I will acknowledge, however, that it’s been an unusually mild winter.

    The biggest surprises have been to do with mooring fees (especially as we’re in London) and time taken to keep things in order.

    Is it cheaper than a flat in Hackney? Yes. Is it cheap? No.

    As an example of upkeep time, If you have a solid fuel stove to keep you warm ( we do) you need to allow time to get it going before you go out, otherwise you’re freezing all night.

    Neither of these issues leaves me with any regrets, it’s just something to be mindful of.

    • Colin Post author

      You’re quite right Dermot – as I’ve said on this site before, living on a narrowboat is not as cheap as many people think – if it’s done legally i.e., with a licence, insurance, mooring fees etc. Some people seek to avoid these various fees, and it is often this element that people latch on to when they think its ‘cheap’. As you mention, it is cheaper than living in a flat, and quite frankly, I would never be able to afford to either buy or rent in the beautiful part of the country I live – Flat rentals exceed £1200 a month!

      You do have to think ahead, and we have become quite skilled at anticipating the weather over the years and have avoided running out of water, fuel etc. – even when the canal has frozen over. But – where possible, living on a narrowboat should be a lifestyle choice not a financial one :)

  9. John Gill

    Is it possible to tie up on a bank in the countryside somewhere and only go into a private marina now and again, or is there a canal law against tying up wherever you want?

    • Colin Post author

      Hi John – it is perfectly possible to tie up (pretty much where you want – or can!) around the canal network. Most marinas have a short term mooring arrangement where you can go in from time to time. Where people fall foul of the regulations is that they must ‘continually cruise’. This article narrowboat moorings helps to define exactly what that means. As for a canal ‘law’ – well there are restrictions about mooring in places in certain areas – usually local by-laws apply – there should be notices clearly indicating if limitations apply.

  10. Jeff

    I’ve just taken on renting a 35 foot narrowboat on the river Lea, near Waltham Cross. I’m beginning to learn the ropes (although my ability to tie knots needs to improve).
    I have a query as to how long I might expect my water tank to last, as my taps were spluttering and eventually producing nothing this morning. Myself and the owner filled the tank up around 3 weeks ago and I’ve spent roughly 5 to 6 nights on board. I haven’t used the shower. Anyway I’m a bit surprised.
    Can anyone tell me if I’m right to be so?

    • Colin Post author

      Hi Jeff – one of the delights (and frustrations) of a narrowboat is that virtually nothing is ‘standard’ – so it is impossible for me to guess how big your water tank is – it may be surprisingly small. However, we live on an ex hire boat (which tend to have a larger tank) and I would not try to go more than a week without having to fill the water. I know by default that we can go about 10 days at a real push. I would think that approx 6 days use will exhaust most tanks, and people moving onto, or using a boat for the first time soon learn that water conservation is vital (both inside and outside the boat!). Turning taps off when brushing teeth, using less water in a basin etc. are all ways than can help extend the time between fill-ups. That said, do check that you don’t have a leak in the water system….

  11. Mr.Moore

    I am thinkng of buying a second hand 45″ boat to live on. I have seen one I like but need to know if it is safe to buy. IE. is the owner the real owner and is there a loan in this vessel? I intend to have a survey done and obtain a BSC. Can anyone shed light if there is a marine version of a car HPI check.
    Many Thanks

  12. bohmon

    Thanks so much for your site.

    One very important aspect I haven’t come across on any site yet is… how to er, ‘drive’ (!?) the thing :) For total newbies, are there courses/classes somewhere?

    • Colin Post author

      A number of companies run narrowboat handling courses around the country – you may see them advertised as ‘Inland Waterways Helmsman’s Courses‘ (just to confuse you!)
      In an effort to try and remain as impartial as possible, (and not be seen to endorse any particular one), I would suggest a quick Google search for ‘Narrowboat Handling Courses’. That should bring up a selection, and you will be able to choose one that is suitable for your needs and budget. :D


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